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Dublin, California is Becoming a Norcal Chess Powerhouse

February 23, 2017

DUBLIN, CA–Youth chess is thriving in Dublin, with a plethora of clubs for elementary school-aged beginners, highly-competitive school-based teams, and two nationally-ranked individual players.

Long dominated by Fremont, Saratoga, Cupertino, and other affluent, high-performing school districts, Dublin chess teams are starting to make their mark in the Bay Area, racking up team and individual trophies.

At the Scholastic section of the recent U.S. Amateur Team West tournament, Fallon Middle School sent five teams, with two taking home hardware: a mixed team of 7th and 8th-graders tied for first overall with an unblemished 5-0 record, while another team took first in its lower division category. Fallon players Abhinav Koka, Anish Kasam and Anish Kataria won 1st or 2nd-place for their undefeated individual records.

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Fallon’s chess club has already won 9 regional and national team trophies this fall, adding to the nine it won last year. The club has almost 90 players, of whom almost two-thirds are competing – and winning – in U.S. Chess-rated tournaments, including 6th grader Evan Ai, who has been ranked in the top 30 in the country for his age for the past 5 years, and 8th-grader Koka, who recently took second among all 14-year-olds at a national tournament.

Many Opportunities for Players

katherine-paskFallon’s success belies its short history: with the support of Fallon’s PFC and administration, the chess club was founded only two years ago by myself and a half-dozen parent volunteers. But the ingredients for success were already there. Besides Dublin’s strong schools and academically-minded students, there is also a cultural affinity. Chess is very popular in India, with a recent world champion, Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, coming from the country. Also, many of Fallon’s players moved from other parts of the Bay Area where they learned and played in strong youth chess programs. For instance, Evan Ai got his start at an after-school class at an elementary school in Saratoga.

Let’s not forget the professionally-run after-school chess programs in Dublin schools, which have taught hundreds, if not thousands of players, the basics of the game over the years. Take Walnut Creek-based Pacific Chess Academy. It has taught chess to kids at Kolb and Amador Elementary Schools, as well as two Dublin Christian schools, Valley Christian and St. Raymond Catholic School. According to owner Jeff Pernik, “our lessons are a combination of instruction, tournament games, and analysis.”

The well-known Berkeley Chess School has taught in recent years at Dougherty Elementary, John Green Elementary, and Quarry Lane School. Berkeley Chess also runs a Friday night program for advanced players and weekend tournaments in nearby San Ramon, and plans to hold a summer camp in Dublin for the second year in a row.

There are also newer programs, such as the Tri-Valley Chess Club, which teaches younger kids in the evenings and weekends at the Dublin Public Library. And both Quarry Lane School and Dublin High School both have clubs run largely by the students.

Learning Resiliency and Teamwork

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One of Fallon’s parent-coaches is Kaushik Bakhandi, a business technology consultant with two children in Dublin schools. “I used to play competitive chess at the national level as a high school student back in India. As an adult, I always had the intention to coach kids and started with my own sons.”

Bakhandi, who coaches one of the four Fallon chess classes that meet every Thursday, says chess is far more than an over-the-board diversion. Chess “not only helps one develop analytical thinking, stamina, and concentration, but also helps develop some important life skills such as fighting back from adverse situations.”

Indeed, research shows that playing chess is not only linked to improved student math and reading skills, but also better critical and creative thinking skills. No wonder chess has become a part of the standard school curriculum in many American school districts, and whole countries such as Spain and Armenia.

“What I like most about chess is that I have to develop strategies,” says Evan, who is 11 years-old. “I think that will help me in my life because no matter what your hobby or occupation is, it is necessary to have a good strategy/plan.”

Chess also gives kids, including non-athletes, a fun way to build their competitive muscles (and win individual glory), as well as practice essential skills like mental toughness and resiliency, as they learn to shrug off the sting of the inevitable losses.

Katherine Pask is a 5th-grader at John Green Elementary who has played competitively for 3 years. She is ranked among the top 35 girls in the U.S. Her father John, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Labs, agrees that playing chess has imparted valuable life lessons on Katherine.

Chess “has taught her the value of hard work and honesty with oneself in the pursuit of excellence,” says Pask. “That our losses make us stronger — if only we can see them for the valuable lessons they are.”

While pop culture might depict chess as a game only for quiet loners, the healthy hubbub during Fallon’s Thursday club belies that stereotype. And a well-run chess club gives kids many opportunities to work together and reach goals with teammates, building camaraderie and forging friendships in the process.

After all, when asked what she most enjoys about chess, Katherine’s reply is “I like seeing my friends and winning bets with my Dad!”

Future’s So Bright

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With massive participation, standout players, and teams regularly taking home trophies, chess is indeed thriving locally. Fallon, as well as Quarry Lane, are among the favorites for the State Chess Tournament in March. Fallon is also hoping to attend the National tournament for the first time this May. To be held in May in Nashville, Tennessee, this year’s edition is a “Supernationals” tournament, bringing together more than 5,000 kids between Kindergarten to 12th grade, making it the largest chess tournament in the world.

“The national level is much more competitive, but I am hopeful that we have a good chance if we are able to participate as a team,” says Bakhandi.

Eric Lai is a 7-year Dublin resident with two sons at Fallon Middle School who works in high-tech marketing. He led the creation of the Fallon chess club in 2015.

For more inspiration about the educational benefits of chess, watch Disney’s “Queen of Katwe” (based on a true story):

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